Between the local newspaper, radio updates, the evening television newscasts and now updates via the Internet, your PDA or your cell phone, news seems ubiquitous. But where does news come from? How does what you read and hear and view get to the point of being published or broadcast? Fundamentally, news is a construction, and the nature of that construction is important to how we shape our view of the symbolic and mediated reality of the world. So how are those symbols created and recognized, and what role do the mediators, the news producers, play in shaping how we think about the world around us?
Complexity Of News Decisions
News gathering may seem a simple process. An event happens, reporters go and gather facts, they write the stories, and we read or hear the stories. On occasion it may happen just like that. But what remains invisible are the dozens and sometime hundreds of decisions that went on behind the scenes, invisible to news consumers, before that story was covered, reported, written, or edited.
Let’s take a seemingly straightforward example. Two men enter a bank, produce weapons, fire shots to frighten patrons and employees, take a large amount of cash, and escape. Is this a news story or not? The answer is: it depends. Each news organization, each news community, each news manager may differ in the determination of what is or is not newsworthy, or in other words, what will and will not be covered and published. There are some fairly simple considerations: was anyone hurt or killed, how many people were affected, was the amount of money taken large, have the suspects been apprehended, and were there unusual circumstances surrounding the robbery? Then there are other factors, which may be determined by the location of the robbery. In Cheyenne, Wyoming, bank robberies may not be a common occurrence, therefore would warrant coverage. In Los Angeles, there may well be too many robberies in a single day to make any one single incident important enough to report.
Another set of criteria used may be how much is happening that particular day. In other words, what are the competing events of the day: is it a busy day with much to cover or is it a slow news day? Yet another set of considerations might include the historical context for this story, in other words, is this one in a series of robberies that have occurred? Furthermore, what is the news organization’s policy about reporting crime? Some might put a premium on crime news given its prurient interest among viewers – others may choose not to publish every random crime committed in favor of more substantive news. What about the individuals making the news decisions – have they been the victim of a crime, what is their attitude toward crime stories, what are they trying to accomplish with each day’s news? Also built into this decision-making matrix are factors such as where in the city the robbery took place; was it in an affluent area, was it in a poorer part of town, and what was the racial-ethnic background of the perpetrators?
Race, class, and other sociological facts can easily come into play in the decision-making process.
News Decisions As A Social Process
These are just a few of the hundreds if not thousands of considerations that surround decisions about news each day in every news organization. When we pull back for a broader look at any given news event and the coverage that may or may not occur, one thing becomes rather obvious: news is a socially constructed product. This social construction of news results in a certain view of a community and of the world at large. The day’s news is a result of many decisions, policies, and circumstances. It is a social process, part institutional culture, part human dynamics.
A number of keen observers have helped with our understanding of the social construction of news. In 1922 Walter Lippmann described the way in which people construct pictures in their heads based upon the often incomplete reporting on public affairs. In his scathing critique of journalism and public opinion, Lippmann, a journalist himself, was struck by how little the public knew and how easily this knowledge was manipulated. Lippmann recognized the power that he and others had over influencing what stories were covered and how they were covered. He also observed how willing people were at times to believe what they read because of a lack of knowledge.
So what influences news workers in all the decisions they make, from choosing what stories to cover, to whom they will interview, to what a headline might say? Edward J. Epstein made the case in 1973 that organizational constraints heavily influenced the way in which news was put together. In 1978 sociologist Gaye Tuchman made a strong argument for how news is socially constructed in her study of four news organizations over a ten-year period. She found that embedded routines and categories in the news process determine much of how decisions are made. Herbert Gans published Deciding what’s news in 1979, his study of network news organizations and national news magazines, pointing out in great detail how journalists are strongly influenced by their beliefs, their own social standing, their organizational culture, and their sources. Both of these studies, along with Mark Fishman’s Manufacturing the news (1988, 1st pub. 1980), demonstrated the way in which the structure and routines in news operations play a direct role in influencing news selection and decision-making.
News As Meaning-Making
A group of later studies represented a shift away from looking at structures and routines to a stronger look at meaning-making in news. This represents a shift from analyzing structural concerns to analyzing the texts and discourses themselves that are presented in news products. Unlike Fishman, Gans, or Tuchman, Herman & Chomsky (1988), for example, offered little evidence from studying news operations or news workers themselves, but instead concentrated on the news products, what journalists produced, to make their case that the political elite control ideas delivered through news media. Taking a less political-economic perspective, James Carey proposed the ritual model of communication, writing about how news can be seen as a means by which people survey the world each day to reinforce what they already believe. He wrote, “A ritual view of communication will focus on a different range of problems in examining a newspaper. It will, for example, view reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass, situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed” (1989, 20).
Stuart Hall was influential in thinking and writing about ideology and news, and in particular the way in which media in general and often news media in particular impose an imagined coherence on ideas. He argued against the idea of a neutral ideology of news media and showed a number of ways in which meaning was constructed and audiences were able to read or decode these messages. Todd Gitlin (1980) drew on Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony theory, to show how the news media marginalized the left in coverage of the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Moloch & Lester saw value in not looking to news as a source of reality, but instead analyzing news to find the “purposes which underlie the strategies of creating one reality or another” (1974, 111). Later scholars have showed how race, gender, and class influence what news is covered, how it is covered, and how it is presented, as well as what stories are routinely ignored (see Entman 1990; Campbell 1995; Heider 2000, 2004).
- Campbell, C. P. (1995). Race, myth, and the news. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Carey, J. W. (1989). Communication as culture. Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman.
- Entman, R. M. (1990). Modern racism and the images of blacks in local television news. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 7, 332 –345.
- Epstein, E. J. (1973). News from nowhere. New York: Random House.
- Fishman, M. (1988). Manufacturing the news. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. (Original work published 1980).
- Gans, H. J. (1979). Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. New York: Pantheon.
- Gitlin, T. (1980). The whole world is watching. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Heider, D. (2000). White news: Why local news programs don’t cover people of color. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Heider, D. (ed.) (2004). Class and news. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing consent. New York: Pantheon.
- Kaniss, P. C. (1991). Making local news. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opinion. New York: Free Press.
- Moloch, H., & Lester, M. (1974). News as purposive behavior: On the strategic use of routine events, accidents, and scandals. American Sociological Review, 39, 101–112.
- Shoemaker, P. J., & Reese, S. D. (1991). Mediating the message: Theories of influences on mass media content. New York: Longman.
- Tuchman, G. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.